WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has given his approval to Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to deploy additional military resources to the Persian Gulf region to deter Iranian threats, according a senior US official.
The new deployment includes Patriot missile batteries, reconnaissance aircraft and accompanying necessary forces to provide further deterrence against what the Pentagon believes is a rising Iranian threat against US troops in the region, according to the official and another US official directly familiar with the deployment proposal.
Shanahan, as acting secretary of defense, has the authority to sign deployment orders, but major deployments are typically briefed to the President.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Arms sales to Saudi Arabia
The Trump administration is also considering using a pre-existing rule that would allow it to expedite arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s regional foe, as part of its effort to counter Iran, according to two US officials.
The arms announcement could come as early as Friday.
The two moves signal an intensified push against Tehran that is likely to raise concerns on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have questioned the administration’s threat assessment about Iran and expressed concern that the military build-up could lead to an accidental confrontation.
Shanahan and other administration officials have said the administration’s focus is on deterrence and the protection of US forces in the region.
The US has yet to publicly provide any evidence that shows increased Iranian threats.
The commander of US Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, is putting a priority on sending defensive capabilities to the region, including the Patriots and intelligence gathering aircraft, according to the US official familiar with the deployment plans.
Additional phases, if needed, could focus on more firepower, such as ships and aircraft, the official said.
The deployment, requested by CENTCOM, is seen as an initial step that could be followed with other deployments if needed, the official said. It’s not clear how many troops would be involved in the first phase, but two officials said the number is expected to be significantly lower than 5,000.
CENTCOM oversees US military operations in the Middle East. Shanahan briefed the President on options for Iran Thursday.
A top military priority for now is to get additional Patriot missiles to the region, according to the US official. That system is capable of shooting down ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as aircraft.
The US military also wants to send military engineers to the region to improve airfield security at bases CENTCOM would like to use. Another strategy will be to try to base some forces at locations out of the range of any potential Iranian missile attack. One such location might be Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia according to some officials. It is not clear if an agreement with the Saudis has been reached.
The CENTCOM deployment request also includes both manned and unmanned aircraft for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to monitor the movement of Iranian forces, including their increased readiness.
Pentagon officials have said that military intelligence assessments in the last several days underscored increased Iranian military readiness along their coastline and the thousands of short and medium range ballistic and cruise missiles in their inventory that could strike US targets in the region.
Those assessments have been questioned by lawmakers, who said after closed-door briefings Tuesday from Shanahan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the threat level from Iran was not unusual. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who sits on the foreign relations committee, said Monday that he was hearing “Republicans twist the Iran intel to make it sound like Iran is taking unprovoked, offensive measures against the US and our allies.”
Murphy and other lawmakers argue that Iran’s moves are “predictable” deterrence steps, given the US decision to send warships to the Gulf region a few weeks ago and the Trump administration’s ongoing campaign to throttle Iran’s economy with sanctions.
Adding to confusion about the nature of the threat Iran poses, Trump told reporters on Monday evening that “we have no indication that anything’s happened or will happen, but if it does, it will be met obviously with great force.”
Senators from both parties have also blasted the administration’s potential move to sell new bombs to Riyadh, with some calling it an abuse of power and a dangerous precedent.
A section of the Arms Control Act allows the White House to waive a traditional 30-day congressional notification period for arms sales if the President declares an emergency, thereby preventing Congress from being able to put a hold on those arms deals.
Murphy said if Trump took such a step, he would be exploiting an “obscure loophole” in arms control law and the result “would be a complete abuse of power.” Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, warned about the precedent the move could set, while Republican senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky said they opposed the idea.
The US military strongly believes the increased threat from Iran that emerged earlier this month has not diminished, according to several officials, a contrast to the doubts expressed by lawmakers and the President’s characterization of the situation. The US continues to monitor intercepted conversations and messages involving Iranian Quds force leaders and their proxy forces inside Iraq and Syria.
The Pentagon also continues to look at whether Iran was behind a recent attack on four ships in the United Arab Emirates. The first US official said US military intelligence suspects it is most likely that divers placed magnetic mines on the tankers. The military is concerned that could happen again, the official said.
US intelligence observed an Iranian boat taking an unusual course around the time of the sabotage attack, according to a US official with knowledge of the investigation. The assessment is that divers were possibly deployed off the Iranian boat, but that is not a conclusion that administration officials have taken publicly or even endorsed with great confidence. Asked on May 21 if Iran was behind the tanker attacks, Pompeo said “we haven’t formed a definitive conclusion,” and added “it’s quite possible.”